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February 24, 2005

why Dante is "good to think with"

The Cambridge philosopher Miles Burnyeat says that Plato is “good to think with” (pdf, p. 20) I believe the same of Dante, which is why I chose to write a book about current moral issues by interpreting sections of the Divine Comedy. Like Plato’s dialogues, the Comedy is a concrete story in which abstract ideas appear as statements by embodied characters in specific historical circumstances, who attempt (to various degrees) to live by what they say. In both works, the question of irony arises. Plato is not Socrates, and Dante-the-poet is not Dante-the-pilgrim. It isn't clear what the author thinks of his main character's views.

It is not obvious why we should use old literary works to think about current moral issues, especially if the authors of those texts refused to say straightforwardly what they believed. However, the humanities are premised on the idea that we should “think with” novels, dialogues, and other narratives.

One explanation is that any text from the distant past provides an alternative perspective on the world. For instance, the Divine Comedy helps us to understand what it would be like to see everything (historical events, the behavior of animal species, even the movements of the stars) as if it had a moral purpose. But I must say that I do not find a morally teleological universe at all plausible; thus it may be interesting to understand Dante’s medieval teleology, but it is not life-altering. Perhaps it would be more challenging for a modern democrat to take seriously Dante’s celebrations of aristocratic and martial virtues.

However, Dante’s exotic perspective is not what I find most useful in him. The Divine Comedy is “good to think with” because it embodies several moral perspectives in vivid characters and situations—including the character of the author. Embodying moral values is how we must think if we want to make really serious ethical choices.

Philosophers often hope to be able to construct persuasive moral arguments that run inevitably from premises to conclusions. So, for example, Robert Nozick argues that if you value freedom, then you cannot favor schemes to guarantee particular distributions of wealth. Peter Singer argues that if you believe that we must minimize the quantity of suffering in the world, then you cannot permit vivisection. Judith Jarvis Thompson argues that if you believe that individuals may refuse to be involuntary life-support systems for other individuals, then you must permit abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Impressive as some of the arguments are, they have two major limitations. First, there is substantial and reasonable disagreement about the premises that generate the conclusions, and there may never be arguments strong enough to decide the premises. Second, there cannot be abstract arguments that address a wide (and crucial) range of questions involving our choice of a life or our valuation of characters and institutions. It is simply implausible that an argument, abstracted from context, could decide whether I should lead an active or a contemplative life, advise the powerful or seek power myself, pursue civic engagement or study mathematics, raise children or devote myself to work, or prefer the political economy of Norway to that of Hong Kong (or vice-versa). To grapple with such issues, we need detailed, “thick” descriptions that give us portraits of whole situations over time.

Thus, when I wanted to consider whether it was better to take moral guidance from stories or from philosophical principles, I found it most illuminating to “think with” a story—the Divine Comedy—in which that choice is a major theme, woven into the structure and not merely talked about. The tension between Dante’s love of human particularity and his commitment to abstract principles is embodied in the narrator’s ambivalence toward his main character; in the gradual but relentless movement from concrete and emotional narrative toward abstract speculation; and even in the metrical scheme, terza rima, which marries a metronomic regularity to great variety of rhythm and texture. Thus all aspects of literary criticism, including formal analysis, can help us to identify the values of Dante-pilgrim and of Dante-poet, and to decide whether we should agree with either of them.

February 24, 2005 8:56 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


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